Prof van Rooyen ready for a fifteenth Berg

Prof van Rooyen ready for a fifteenth Berg

When the field of paddlers leaves at the start of the 2022 Berg River Canoe Marathon on 6 July, Stellenbosch University Professor Johan van Rooyen will be eagerly looking forward to what will be his fifteenth Berg medal.

While living in KwaZulu-Natal his sporting passion started with running, and after earning his green number for completing ten Comrades Marathons, into his forties he tried his hand at paddling, taking on the local iconic events like the Dusi and the Umkomaas marathons.

“Then I heard about the toughest four day K1 river race on the planet and headed down to the Cape in 1991 with my trusty Assegai canoe,” he recalls.

“It was very different from the warm, brown, rocky KZN rivers and big rapids. It started with a march through Paarl on a cold, dark winters day, and helpings of wine sponsored by KWV,” he remembers.

“Then onto the fast flowing icy waters! The river was flooded that year with massive bluegum tree blocks all over and swirlies and gangetjies. There were many swims too and the adrenaline just kept pumping.

“On the exciting second day I followed the ‘hardebaarde’ like a shadow. The long Day Three was done in glorious sunshine with no wind and green countryside. We slept in farm barns next to the river, with many other paddlers. KWV had their tents there. I was hooked on the Berg Experience!” he said.

The evergreen 74 year old Professor Extra Ordinaire at Stellenbosch University’s Agribusiness and Agricultural Economics department says that the allure of the tough 240km four-day paddle from Paarl to Velddrif pulls him back every year.

“What brings me back? Well as Malory said when asked about Everest ‘Because it is there’” he muses. “There are three things that bring me back every year.

“The challenge of facing all the earth elements together in one race. The rain and that North West wind, the cold, flowing, swirling waters, the treacherous tree blocks and tricky gangetjies – all these make it a unique and adrenaline pumping endeavour par excellence and really something to accomplish by yourself.

“Then there is the Berg camaraderie,” he says “It builds over a long time- early morning trips with your mates, sharing river knowledge over a fire, caring for each on the water, and of course the seconds are an integral part of the team.

“Finally it is a unique journey through the beautiful winter landscape,” he added. “Sometimes on days you can see forever – green wheat fields and snow on the mountains. But take care, around the next bend there could perhaps be a swirly or gangetjie to catch you unawares!”

For Van Rooyen his love of paddling centres on the group of friends who make up the Maties Turbo Toppies.

“They are so inspirational and supportive,” he says. “Sometimes I even think I am doing it just to be with them.”

“I also had some real paddling adventures with my paddling sons Inus and Francois and swaer Willie Lemmer.”

Van Rooyen’s journey as a paddler has been shared with the people who have loyally seconded him along the way.

“Always Elba, my wife, and kids and grandkids,” says van Rooyen. ”Theuns Stoffberg was our first Berg second- what a joll that was to have a Springbok captain as your second. Francois Loedolf’s daughter Gina has been a real super second. More recently the always keen Paul and Ernst. Capable and resourceful, even when the organisers want to pull you off the river!”

Van Rooyen deflects the attention that he will get as he heads for the milestone fifteen Berg finish, but says he is looking forward to one particular quirky form of recognition.

“The event in itself is always significant, not the number,” he says “It is rather the training, tripping, getting to know the river again, and the camaraderie, which you have to do to eventually complete the race.

“But a 15th Berg will put my name on a particular buoy on the famous Matie dammetjie! Now that will be fun!!” he concluded